Prey [official site] isn't the game I thought it would be. Clearly, Prey isn't the game that anyone thought a game called 'Prey' would be until relatively recently, given its years in development hell and eventual total departure from both the first game to bear that name and the axed second one that was supposed to. But even when I played it twice over the past couple of months, doing so within time constraints, with my eye only on making progress, I formed an inaccurate impression of Prey. I thought I knew exactly what it was, and I knew I'd like it, but I wasn't sure I'd love it. I certainly didn't think it'd turn out to be the game I've enjoyed the most so far this year.
I haven't finished it yet, though I'm getting close now, so I can't speak to whether I agree with John's complaints about how its story plays out, but I can say that I don't care a jot about the story so far. I mean that only positively. Outside of the long and rather sterile introduction and occasional expository radio messages, the story has not gotten in my way, leaving me free to concentrate on the all-important task of finding a way into every locked room.
Metroid games, with which this has much delightfully in common, are not games we play for their story (though in fairness they do have a history of far too much unskippable text in the moments when they decide story is required), but for their environmental puzzling, using the slow growth of your power-set to enter previously inaccessible places.
The defining element of the best Metroid games (Metroid Fusion on GBA being the creme de la creme), for me, is finding a locked door or blocked passage in an early area, spending a good half hour trying and failing to find a way in, then storing it somewhere in the back of your head. Hours later, you acquire some new skill or even insight into alternative uses for an older skill, and the penny suddenly drops. All forward motion is instantly abandoned in favour of back-tracking to that door you saw so long ago. Prey, thus far, has been exactly this, and I love it for it.
I know my packrat/kleptomaniacal tendencies are being played like a cheap fiddle with this. I know that each of those locked doors or sealed rooms or blocked passages have all been placed strategically, to coax and torment me into finding a way into them, even if it involves hours-long treks back and forth across this vast space station. I'm one of those humans who feels compelled to collect, and I am far from alone in it. Prey has been created specifically for me and my itchy-fingered peers.
I have never much enjoyed the straightforward collectormania of, say, finding each of 200 bird feathers scattered across the rooftops of an Assassin's Creed, but when it's a matter of knowing that something is being kept away from me unless I can solve an environmental riddle, when I don't even know what that something is but can't bear the thought of missing out on it, then I am helpless to resist. I am the squirrel deciphering a huge and complex obstacle course to reach the pile of peanuts at its end.
I did not realise that this was what Prey truly was. I thought the alien-fighting would take centre stage, I thought that, despite talk of it all being set within one space station rather than a series of linked levels, it would still be a game played in stages, like BioShock or Dishonored or a latter-day Deus Ex. I enjoy those games, but their formula is becoming familiar - specifically, comb each place with a fine-tooth comb and then never return.
I hit some kind of psychological block when I played Dishonored 2, a wall that caused me to stop playing it prematurely, and I have been worrying about it ever since. I remember using the Heart to show me the locations of where each Rune and Bonecharm was on the third or fourth level. The dark truth it reveal to me was the distances involved, all the climbing and jumping and teleporting that would be required, all the hiding and throttling necessary to reach them safely, and the gloomy likelihood that I would not be able to figure them all out without external reference. Particularly, there was the knowledge that, in order to meet my own non-lethal criteria, I would have to methodically choke every single enemy on the map into unconsciousness before I felt free to explore and experiment without being constantly bothered.
And all I could see was the work of it.
I had done all this before, many times, in the first Dishonored, and the same experience again, even if prettier and in some cases more elaborate, suddenly seemed only like toil. I didn't need all those power-ups, but my lizard brain could not leave them be, so I had to clamber across every rooftop and through every skylight and leap to every ledge to reach every one. These did not seem like puzzles, so much as an arduous search for the only correct route to them. No a-ha moments, but instead slowly locating the platform or window that led to them.
Between that, the surprisingly dreary Mass Effect: Andromeda and the overly-functional campaign in Dawn of War III, the poison seed grew - what if it's me? What if I've suddenly ceased to enjoy that which I used to? What if all of this has happened before and has happened again, that I have seen the cycle of gaming return to its start too many times and can take no new joy from it?
Prey has proven that all it takes is the right game at the right time. It is the games, it is me (after all, Dishonored 2 was loved by many, whereas the other two proved divisive), but most of all it's both. I've had this with music and books and film at various points in my life too. Sometimes, a once-beloved activity stops making sense, it loses its thrall, nothing seems to stand out, a point of connection cannot be found. Until, one day, it is, and the gates are open again.
I am enjoying myself far more than I had expected, but I don't know that Prey's a masterpiece. In its latter half the puzzlebox element has faded in favour of a more familiar power fantasy, while its storyline works too hard to conjure mystery without making me care first, and its lead characters lack much personality to speak of. But it realises that other element of System Shock, its shared heritage with Dishonored and BioShock and Deus Ex, so well - mind-mapping a large space, making it very slowly your own rather than leaving it behind.
The choice of skills, whether to pick locks or hack terminals or kill or sneak, and of paths through a self-contained level? I know all that almost too well now, as much as I used to desperately crave more games like it. Prey's differences are subtle but crucial. I inhabit this space for dozens of hours rather than merely vacuum-clean it for a handful of them. One giant puzzlebox to solve.
I resist most of the alien powers, the psychic bolts and mind-control and EMP blasts and all that, because they feel like vestigial incursions from a completely different game - one far more about action than exploration. The only ones I did pick are Mimic, because I can use it to transform into a tin can or potted plant and so fit through small openings, and the ability to use items remotely - enough to activate a door lock from afar. The ones that get me into places, in other words. I fight, of course, with my shotgun and my silenced pistol, but I fight to remove obstacles to my exploration, and secondarily to harvest resources that I can then spend on Neuromods which will upgrade my exploration powers. I do not, however, fight for the sake of fighting, even if my cleansing the place of all enemies might outwardly seem to be pathological.
Prey is not the game I thought it would be. Prey is a game of exploration rather than of progression per se. Most of all, Prey has been a profound relief. Me and games are still OK. I just needed the right game.